© 2014 Robert Osburn
Father and son duo Ken and William Hopper introduced us in 2007 to the idea that the Puritans’ core values, such as thrift and an individualism balanced by the need to cooperate, helped created create US America’s dynamic managerial culture. In their book The Puritan Gift: Reclaiming the American Dream Amidst Financial Chaos (2007), the Hoppers maintain, for example, that the commitment to develop one’s craft within an organization (a Puritan pattern) is better preparation for being a successful manager than is an MBA.
I wish, however, they had talked about another Puritan gift: The Puritans’ unrelenting commitment to self-examination and integrity. And it is this absolute commitment to holiness that created a cultural template of honesty and disdain for corruption in New England. Given the worldwide flood of corruption in governments around the world (most recently exemplified by that of Ukraine’s former leader Viktor Yanukovych), Americans ought to drop daily to their knees and thank God for our virtuous Puritan ancestors.
Without for a minute discounting the problems associated with their religious intolerance (though Harvard historian David Hall has shown in his 2011 book A Reforming People that it was much less severe than commonly believed), the simple reality is that the United States’ relatively low level of corruption owes itself almost entirely to our Puritan and Protestant forebears who strongly resisted temptations and inner corruption of the soul. One Puritan prayed, for example:
Grant that my proneness to evil, deadness to good, resistance to Thy Spirit’s motions, may never provoke Thee to abandon me. May my hard heart awake Thy pity, not Thy wrath, and if the enemy gets an advantage through my corruption, let it be seen that heaven is mightier than hell, that those for me are greater than those against me.
He was characteristic of the Puritans of the 17th century. Combined with determination and courage to establish a holy colony in the New World, the Puritans (and most of the other movements that spun out of them, including modern-day evangelicalism) laid a template of honesty and integrity in political and social relations. Thus, even as early as the 1830s, when Tocqueville the social philosopher studied the USA, he could see that one of US America’s virtues was its honesty.
The culture of honesty bred tremendous business confidence, and thus America could accommodate ever-larger numbers of immigrants, provided they came to embrace that cultural norm. And most did (except for an isolated group of Sicilians whom we have come to call the “mafia”).
When you hear the word “puritan” spoken with a condescending sneer, remind your interlocutor that it’s because of the Puritans that Americans, unlike Ukrainians, don’t have to revolt against leaders they suspect of looting the government treasury for private gain, and a zoo to match. And while you’re at it, invite them to join you in giving thanks for this remarkable religious heritage that has forever shaped America culture.